In the 1939 movie version of “The Wizard of Oz,” the Cowardly Lion wistfully sings, “If I only had the nerve.”
You’ll never catch Andrew Lloyd Webber warbling those words.
The celebrated Britain-to-Broadway musical maven proves just that with a stage version of “The Wizard of Oz.”
The musical launches its North America tour Tuesday at The Smith Center after an eight-month Toronto run, demonstrating that all roads — even yellow brick ones — lead to Vegas.
Never fear, the stage show — which Lloyd Webber and director Jeremy Sams adapted from the silver-screen classic — still showcases the Oscar-winning songs of composer Harold Arlen and lyricist E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, from the jaunty “We’re Off to See the Wizard” to the plaintive “Over the Rainbow.” (Lloyd Webber called the latter, in an interview with the Toronto Globe and Mail, “arguably one of the best songs ever written.”)
But a stage version of Dorothy Gale’s amazing journey from Kansas to the over-the-rainbow realm of Oz needed more than just the movie’s musical score — at least in the opinion of the man behind musical megahits such as “Phantom of the Opera” and “Cats.”
So Lloyd Webber requested permission to bring the movie to the stage — and proceeded to do just that, reuniting with his “Evita” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” lyricist, Tim Rice, in the process.
Lloyd Webber and Rice added six new songs to the Arlen-Harburg score, giving musical voice to some of the movie’s literally unsung characters.
For example, “there are no songs for the Wicked Witch or Professor Marvel,” the future wizard, in the movie’s score, associate director Madeline Paul notes in a telephone interview from Toronto.
At least not until Lloyd Webber wrote “The Red Shoes Blues” and “The Wonders of the World,” respectively. (Glinda the Good also gets her solo in the spotlight: the climactic “Already Home.”)
Even in the beginning, back in Kansas, the movie doesn’t offer “much to establish the harshness of life on a Kansas farm,” Paul points out.
As a result, this “Wizard of Oz” introduces dreamy heroine Dorothy Gale with a new opening number, “Nobody Understands Me.”
It’s “not too much of a song,” acknowledges Danielle Wade, who won the starring role of Dorothy on Canadian TV’s “Over the Rainbow,” a talent-search series that featured Lloyd Webber as one of the judges. “But it’s a way to establish the conflict right away.”
As for that other stuck-in-Kansas song Dorothy sings, Wade says her goal “wasn’t necessarily putting my own stamp” on one of the most beloved songs in pop music history, immortalized on screen by the equally beloved Judy Garland.
“With a role like this, when your predecessor is so well known, there’s always that pressure,” Wade says. “The audience expects something from you.”
While “I never wanted to (replace) anything Judy Garland gave that song, I wanted to bring myself and still maintain the integrity” of “Over the Rainbow,” she says. “I have a lot to live up to — but I enjoy the challenge.”
And why wouldn’t she? Playing Dorothy represents the University of Windsor acting major’s first paying job. (That is, if you don’t count her time at Tim Horton’s, Canada’s most popular fast-food fixture.)
“It’s everything I could have hoped for,” Wade says of her professional stage debut, which she describes as “an awesome experience.” (She expects the Las Vegas tour launch to be equally so — especially because she just turned 21.)
Awesome, to be sure — but also a bit daunting with the legendary Lloyd Webber calling the shots.
“He knows his music and he knows what he wants,” Wade says. “He expects nothing less than perfection.” And that, she admits, can be “terrifying.”
Even so, Wade adds, “it’s very interesting to see how people remake a classic.”
Understandably, “great reverence was given to ‘Over the Rainbow,’ because it’s such an iconic song,” Paul says. But Lloyd Webber was “so pleased” when he was granted the rights to adapt “The Wizard of Oz,” because “he created some magical music.”
Lloyd Webber also created definite media buzz — first in London, then in Toronto — with the “Over the Rainbow” TV casting search, a strategy he first employed to find a leading lady for his London production of “The Sound of Music.”
On “Over the Rainbow,” hopefuls “sang a variety of songs and styles,” from pop tunes to (in the finale) Lloyd Webber’s own compositions, Paul recalls. And “there was always a little homage to ‘Wizard of Oz’ in each episode.”
After the show’s “good, healthy run” in Toronto, the touring version will be “fundamentally the same,” according to the associate director.
Except, of course, for Rob Jones’ sets, which have been “redesigned specifically for the tour,” she notes. (All the better to build and strike the set quickly, my dears.)
There’s “a whimsical take on Munchkinland, in shades of blue,” she says — in contrast to the “fiery red” that appears when the Wicked Witch of the West does.
And, inevitably, there’s the gleaming green of Emerald City, the magical destination that has inspired not only “The Wizard of Oz” but “Wicked,” which enjoyed a six-week Smith Center run last year. (Although Dorothy and the Wicked Witch — alias “Wicked’s” protagonist, Elphaba — are enemies in “The Wizard of Oz,” Wade says that, if Dorothy had known the witch’s background, “I’m sure they’d be great friends. They’re both outcasts.”)
With a 64-year head start on “Wicked” (103 years, if you count back to the 1900 debut of writer L. Frank Baum’s first Oz book), “The Wizard of Oz’s” status as “the first universally recognized American fairy tale” seems secure, in Paul’s view.
“It appeals to such a wide demographic,” she says. “Older people who have grown up loving the movie bring their grandchildren. Parents who have read the books bring their children.”
And “the live theatrical experience” heightens the story’s “fairy tale aspect,” Paul says. “It’s about one big dream. Yet was that really a dream — or did it really happen?”
Either way, Lloyd Webber’s songs “carry people away to another place,” she says. “He has a way of touching people’s hearts with music.”
And, in this case, following the yellow brick road to “Oz.”
Contact reporter Carol Cling at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0272.